Sunday, November 18, 2012

Is it better to start a novel with a fast pace and suspense or a slower pace with more background information?

The answer to this question might seem obvious at first—well, you want the story to start in an exciting and gripping way, I mean, otherwise won’t people get bored? You need to hook your readers’ attention, right?

Once I was at a writers conference and a woman gave me her manuscript to look at. The opening was an exciting car chase that really grabbed my attention. It ended with a car crash, and I said, “So this is an action story?” But she shook her head. “It’s a romance. After she gets to the hospital she falls in love with her doctor.”

Now, in a sense when you set out to write a book you’re making a contract with your readers that you are going to entertain them, that you’re going to fulfill or exceed their expectations, and that you’re not going to cheat. I told the woman, “Well if that’s the case, then you just broke your promise because the beginning of the book promises me that it’s going to be action-packed.” She looked exasperated. “My writers critique group told me I needed to have a more exciting hook.”

Many aspiring writers (and even accomplished ones, unfortunately) listen to this advice about a great hook and they start their stories with an exciting opening, but then they have to slow the story down to a snail’s pace to fill readers in on what’s going on and why.

On the other hand, you don’t want to start at a slow pace and dump background information on your reader. So, here are a couple of principles that I keep in mind when I’m shaping the openings to my stories.

(1) The length of the hook is determined by the length of the book. This means that if I’m writing a 500 page novel I don’t need to be clever in the first line or two. Readers will understand that there’s a lot of story to tell and they will give me some space to set up the story. I try not to rush the opening, but set it up to serve the story as a whole.

(2) The opening must not just grab readers’ attention, but must also introduce them to a character they care about, help them picture the story world, and introduce the mood, voice, pace and genre of the story.

(3) Escalation is just as important to a story as the opening scene, or hook, is. If I start a story in an exciting way and then drop way back to fill in the background information, I’ve brought the story’s pace to a grinding halt. I can’t do this if I want to keep readers flipping pages. So, however I start the story, I need to orient the readers to the story at a place where I can quickly escalate the story and propel it forward toward its eventual climax.

So, writing an effective story opening has many facets and if any of them are dropped out, the story will suffer. Grab the attention of the readers, help them see what’s happening, introduce a character we can identify with or aspire to be like, give us a feel for the mood, set the readers expectations in the right place for the story arc you’re working with, and then get on with it. Don’t stall out giving too much background info. Press forward, fulfill your promises, and leave your readers hungry for more.

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